Saturday, September 18, 2021

Internet & Communications in Japan

AsiaJapanInternet & Communications in Japan

Phone

International dialling codes vary from company to company. Check with your network operator for more details. For international calls to Japan, the country code is 81. Landline numbers in Japan have the format +81 3 1234-5678, where “81” is the country code for Japan, the next digit is the area code where the local number is located (may contain one to three digits), and the remaining digits (usually four to eight digits) are the “local” part. For calls within Japan, the long distance prefix (trunk code) is 0, and this is usually written in the number, such as 03-1234-5678.

Emergency call

Emergency calls can be made free of charge from any telephone: Call 110 for the police or 119 for the fire brigade and ambulance.

Payphones

Pay phones (公衆電話 kōshū denwa) are easy to find, especially near train stations, although with the popularity of mobile phones, public pay phones are not quite as numerous as they once were. Grey and green payphones accept ¥10 and ¥100 coins and prepaid cards. Note that not all places with public phones have phones that accept coins, so it may be worth buying a phone card for emergencies. Some of the grey phones, as shown on the display, can make international calls. Prepaid cards can be bought in grocery shops, train station kiosks and sometimes in vending machines next to the phone. International phone charges from pay phones can be unusually high; third-party phone cards are a cheap alternative. An intermediate solution is to buy phone cards from discount ticket shops, which usually sell phone cards for 35-45% of face value (e.g. a 105-unit phone card that would cost ¥1000 in normal sales costs only about ¥650). This may be so cheap for some that they don’t want to bother with a third-party card. If you use a phone card to call abroad directly, NTT’s international dialling code is 0033+010.

Mobile phones

Galápagos Syndrome
Japan has a tendency to develop technologies that are initially better than those available in other parts of the world, but either fail to catch on or are incompatible with global standards. This has been called the Galápagos Syndrome, after the Galápagos Islands and their highly specialised flora and fauna that led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.

Japanese mobile phones were the original example of the Galápagos syndrome. With email and web browsing since 1999 and mobile payments since 2004, they were almost a decade ahead of the global competition. However, when global standards for messaging, web browsing and contactless communication were established, they were not compatible with existing Japanese technologies. As a result, the Japanese mobile phone market became isolated and had a comparatively slow uptake of smartphones, which initially represented a step backwards from Japan’s gara-kei (from “galápagos” and “keitai”) feature phones. Recently, the tide has turned and smartphones have finally begun to gain the upper hand.

Mobile phones are not the only technology suffering from Galapagosisation. Smart cards for public transport, kei cars, digital television and satellite navigation in cars are all examples of technologies widely used in Japan that either never caught on elsewhere or developed incompatible standards that have isolated Japan.

Modern Japanese mobile phones (携帯電話 keitai denwa or simply keitai) tend to work with unique mobile phone standards that are not always compatible with the rest of the world. For example, Japanese 2G mobile phones worked with the Personal Digital Cellular (PDC) standard, which was developed and used exclusively in Japan. Fortunately, this is no longer such a big problem with 3G and 4G. In a nutshell:

  • 2G phones (GSM) from the rest of the world do not work in Japan. The last 2G network in Japan was switched off in 2012.
  • Since AU is switching its CDMA network to the “new” 800 MHz network (used in the rest of the world), foreign 3G CDMA phones can be used for roaming purposes in Japan (but not 2G-only phones). However, you MUST have your phone’s PRL updated or it will not be able to register with AU’s towers.
  • 3G phones that use the UMTS/WCDMA2100 standard and are equipped with a 3G SIM card will most likely work.

If your phone meets the requirements, ask your provider if they have a roaming agreement with SoftBank or NTT DoCoMo. Network coverage is generally excellent unless you are travelling to remote mountainous areas.

Note that Sprint customers with GSM/UMTS-enabled phones can use the SoftBank network in Japan for free text and data at 64 kbit/s due to their affiliation with SoftBank, or pay an additional $5/month for unlimited talk/text/high-speed data, essentially treating the SoftBank network like a second home network. This approach is highly recommended for those who use Sprint as their home provider, unless a Japanese number is required.

If you don’t have a 3G phone but have a 3G-compatible SIM card, you can rent a 3G phone in Japan and plug in your card so you can keep your home phone number in Japan. Carrier restrictions may apply: O2-UK (through NTT DoCoMo in Japan), for example, requires you to dial *111*#, wait for a callback and then dial the actual number you want to be connected to. Check with your network operator before you go.

Data roaming also works (subject to the above restrictions), so you can use wireless internet on your phone (although it can be expensive!). Google Maps on your phone can be invaluable (but note that tower positioning may not work depending on your provider).

For a short visit, it is most convenient to rent a phone to be reachable on the move. A number of companies offer this service. Rental prices and call charges vary, the best one may depend on how long you rent and how much you will be calling.

Beware of “free” rentals, because there is a catch: very high call charges usually apply. Incoming calls are free in Japan.

Japanese phones have an email address linked to the phone number and most of the above companies allow you to send and receive emails. Your usual email provider may offer redirection to another email address (Gmail does) so that you receive all emails on the mobile phone. Be aware that companies charge for incoming and outgoing emails.

For a longer trip, you can also buy a phone, but you will need an Alien Registration Card (or a helpful Japanese friend willing to pay for you) if you want to buy anything other than SoftBank prepaid phones, which are available directly from Global Rental counters in major airports.

  • The easier way is to get a prepaid (プリペイド) phone. Prepaid phones are sold in most SoftBank and au shops (NTT DoCoMo no longer offers prepaid phone services). Shops in key areas of major Japanese cities often have English-speaking staff who can help foreigners, but you should confirm this before visiting the shop. If you already have a 3G phone, you should contact Softbank, as they can sell SIM cards, unlike au, whose prepaid service is phone-based, like most CDMA providers. Note that if you entered on a tourist visa or visa waiver, only SoftBank will sell you service and you MUST buy your SIM card at an airport service desk. Other SoftBank shops are not yet able to sell prepaid SIMs to foreign tourists.
  • Prepaid phones use a “card” with a pass button to “top up” a phone with minutes. These prepaid cards, unlike the phone itself, are available at most grocery shops as well as discount ticket shops for ¥100-¥200 less than face value.
  • A prepaid feature phone is available for as little as ¥5000 plus ¥3000 for a 60-90 day call package (SoftBank now sells standalone SIMs), billed at ¥100 per minute (¥10 per 6 seconds for AU’s prepaid service).
  • Both SoftBank and au offer prepaid phones. Details on prices, phone models and the procedure to get them can be found on their English websites. For email/text-heavy users, SoftBank is the better choice due to the introduction of “Unlimited Mail”, which offers unlimited email and text messaging for ¥300/month for feature phones. For smartphones, SoftBank is the only provider offering prepaid service with data; ¥900 for 2 days unlimited data and email, ¥2,700 for a week unlimited data and email and ¥5,400 for a month unlimited data and email, all on their LTE network.
  • See also b-mobile for a 1GB prepaid data SIM, available in a visitor version for ¥3,980.
  • The cheaper way is a monthly contract, but for that you need proof of a longer stay (=visa). You can expect to pay around ¥5,000 per month with the major providers, assuming light calls, but prices are starting to fall. There may also be a termination fee if the contract is cancelled early. However, there are MVNOs from the major providers that charge lower monthly fees (usually less than ¥2,000 and sometimes just under ¥1,000 if no voice service is required) and do not require a contract term, but expect you to bring your own phone. These MVNOs also suffer from lower priority on the host network (mineo, an au MVNO, often sees its users’ LTE speeds reduced to a few percent of what they normally are at peak times, while au users continue to enjoy high-speed services).

Mail

For ¥70 you can send postcards all over the world. There are public post boxes all over Japan. They have two slots, one for normal domestic mail and the other for overseas and express mail.

Courier services

Several companies in Japan offer a convenient and inexpensive courier service (宅急便 takkyūbin or 宅配便 takuhaibin). This is useful for sending parcels and documents door-to-door, but also for taking luggage to/from airports, cities and hotels, or even having golf clubs and skis/snowboards delivered directly to your sporting destination. Couriers guarantee next-day delivery to virtually anywhere in Japan, except Okinawa and other far-flung islands, but including remote rural locations such as ski resorts.

The largest courier is Yamato Transport, often called Kuro Neko (黒ねこ “black cat”) after their logo. They are often synonymous with “takkyūbin“, and in fact they call their service TA-Q-BIN in English. Other couriers are Sagawa Express and Nittsu (Nippon Express).

You can send and receive parcels at many places. Most grocery shops have delivery services. Hotels and airports also offer courier services.

Internet

Internet cafés (インターネットカフェ) can be found in or around many train stations. Here you can upload your pictures from a digital camera, and if you forget your cable, some cafés will lend you a memory card reader for free. Manga cafés (漫画喫茶 manga-kissa) usually have internet PCs too. When you get tired of surfing the Internet, you can browse comics, watch TV or a range of movies on demand, or play video games. The cost is typically ¥400/hour, with free (non-alcoholic) drinks, and possibly more. There are often special night-time rates: around ¥1,500 for the 4-5 hour period when there are no trains. Internet cafés can be a safe and cheap place to spend the night if you miss the last train.

Some larger train stations and airports also have rental PCs for surfing and sending emails, usually around ¥100 (coin) for 10 minutes.

A number of business hotels offer internet access if you have your own computer, sometimes even free of charge. In most cases, access is provided via a VDSL modem connected to the hotel’s telephone system. In some hotels that offer free internet access, the rental for the modem is not included in the “free” part of the service, so check before using it. Setting up your network interface for DHCP is usually all that is required to access the internet in such situations. Many also have loaner or free PCs available for hotel guests.

Computers in Japan usually have a Japanese keyboard. On a PC, there may be several ways to switch between Japanese and Latin input: the 漢字 or 半角/全角 key (usually top left, just above the tab key); the 英数 key (for Caps Lock); the left Alt key (or perhaps CtrlShift or AltShift); or sometimes Alt or CtrlShift and the ローマ字 or ひらがな/カタカナ key (bottom, right of the space bar). On Macs, use the 英数 key (below, to the left of the space bar). For e-mails, note that the @ key is usually on the right side of the keyboard, next to the P; some other punctuation marks are also shifted.

It is also possible to find Wi-Fi “hot spots” in many major cities in Japan, especially near tech-related businesses and large corporate buildings with unsecured wireless networks (the Apple Store in Ginza, Tokyo has a fast, open 802.11n connection).

3G wireless data is available and if you have international data roaming, you should be able to roam without problems. GPRS does not work in Japan. Please see the section on mobile phones for more information, including phone and data card compatibility. Remember that the same restrictions on phones also apply to 3G data.

The availability of public wifi varies widely in Japan, but is gradually being expanded. Cafés like Starbucks may require you to register your email address and reply to an email before you can use the wifi (which means you have to go there, register, find another place with free wifi and then go back). Many major train stations, airports and conviniece stores also offer wifi, but require you to register each time you use it. An easy way around this is to use the Japan free Wi-Fi app, which allows you to connect without having to register each time. However, you should be prepared that this free public Wi-Fi is usually weak and painfully slow.

Pocket Wi-Fi is another affordable option for people who want to use their Wi-Fi enabled devices (smartphone, iPhone, iPad, laptops, etc.). A Pocket Wi-Fi device is about the size of a Zippo lighter and fits in your pocket or bag. It provides a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to which you can connect your devices.